Threat to gag campaigners in run-up to elections

By Savi Hensman
August 21, 2013

The UK government is seeking to rush a new law through Parliament which would heavily limit action on political and social issues in the twelve months before an election. This threat to basic freedoms could have drastic consequences.

The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill could mean that trade unions and voluntary organisations, including churches, would be punished if they spoke out for the poor and oppressed. There would be strict limits on how much groups seeking social change could spend, and they would be expected to submit frequent accounts.

There have been concerns about the activities of professional lobbyists paid to promote the interests of clients, and there is a case for better regulation of this business. There are also already restrictions on how much can be spent in campaigning for political parties before elections. But the Bill goes far further.

Clause 26 explains that it would cover any organisations spending money on “promoting or procuring electoral success” for “candidates who hold (or do not hold) particular opinions or who advocate (or do not advocate) particular policies”, or “otherwise enhancing the standing” of “any such candidates” with the electorate.

This could cover all kinds of issues, from refuges for survivors of domestic violence to rural transport, social security funding at home to aid for victims of war abroad. Local as well as national campaigns could be hit, for instance against closing a hospital. Ordinarily the year before a general election can be an opportunity to persuade politicians to listen to the public’s views and concerns, even if they do not do so at other times.

According to Political Scrapbook, leaked correspondence from the Electoral Commission shows that it is not happy. It has reportedly pointed out that it would cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to enforce and create “a high level of regulatory uncertainty for campaigners”, since “it seems arguable that the new test could apply to many of the activities of charities, voluntary organisations, blogs, think tanks and other organisations that engage in debate on public policy.”

The Trades Union Congress warned that their annual conference could be outlawed, calling the Bill “an outrageous attack on freedom of speech worthy of an authoritarian dictatorship."

According to a Cabinet Office spokesperson quoted on the BBC website, "This bill does not include campaigning by third parties - charities or other organisations - that are not intended to promote the electoral success of any particular party. So a third party campaigning only on policy issues would be exempt."

But this is not what the wording of the Bill says, nor how various lawyers interpret it. It “will have a chilling effect on civil society and its freedom of expression,” Rosamund McCarthy, a partner at Bates Wells Braithwaite, warned civilsociety.co.uk. “It’s also a possible breach of Article 10 of the Human Rights Act.”

She added that “Charities should remember that because of the European elections, the regulated period for the next election begins in January 2014. The expenditure limits are ludicrous for the period of time up until May 2015.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948, with support from people of various faiths and none. Sadly, as the sixty-fifth anniversary approaches, the UK and several other governments have acted in ways that undermine such rights. Unless the public resist such injustices, worse may follow.

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(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, social justice, welfare and religion. She was written extensively on the theological and religious issues involved in debates about sexuality and marriage equality. She works in the care and equalities sector and is an Ekklesia associate.

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